Category Archives: Charles Tilly

The End of IR Theory? Part I: Bennett and Goddard on Mechanisms

Duck of Minerva, increasingly well-established as the nexus of academic IR online, is hosting a symposium on the ‘The End of IR Theory?’  special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. Lots of interesting posts so far, including one by Mearsheimer and Walt in defence of bold ‘big picture’ grand theorising. Also interesting is Bennett’s take, in which he calls for ‘structured pluralism’ focusing on causal mechanism rather than unproductive inter-‘paradigm’ debate between -isms.  Goddard (who co-wrote what to my mind is one of the best discussions of Waltz in the literature) offers a sympathetic critique, arguing that the pluralism that Bennett advocates might not be all that easy to achieve in practice – as scholars cannot just suspend their pre-established beliefs and reach for the most appropriate mechanisms from a common toolbox when tackling a given problem of explanation. She also defends the pedagogical relevance of introducing students to argument over big ideas in world politics, ‘the lifeblood of the paradigmatic debates’. An overriding focus on the minutiae of mechanisms and nuance of particular theories could result in such a focus being lost.

There’s lots and lots to agree with in this two posts, both on the importance of causal mechanisms for research and advanced-level teaching as well as the relevance of ‘big ideas’ for getting students and aspiring scholars interested in the subject (and let’s be honest, this is why people choose to study and aspire to become scholars of international relations in the first place). In Bennett’s article he makes the important point that

Middle-range theories are not just theories about individual causal mechanisms, but theories about how combinations of mechanisms interact in specified and often recurrent scope conditions or contexts to produce outcomes (p. 470)

This I think provides a bridge from the debate over causal mechanisms within international relations theory to causal mechanisms as understood by historical sociologists such as Charles Tilly (see my post from last year). A central tenet of historical sociology, as I understand it, is that one can indeed locate recurrent causal mechanisms across time and space – but they combine and interact with each other in very different, historically specific ways. So scholars searching for trans-historical covering laws are on a hiding-to-nothing, but – against strongly idiographic approaches that see every historical period, every cultural context as sui generis and incomparable in its uniqueness – we can engage in careful comparisons and draw attention to recurrent sets of causal mechanisms. This is, I think, what Mann means in the later volumes of The Sources of Social Power when he describes the ambitions of his project as lying somewhere between those of Marx and those of Weber.

I’m uncertain, however, about certain aspects of Bennett’s taxonomy of theories of social mechanisms. One dimension of this taxonomy distinguishes between material power, institutional efficiency and normative legitimacy – mirroring the distinction between realism, liberalism and constructivism that seems to have become the orthodox trinity of theories in US IR. I wonder if this set of distinctions leaves room for ideas of social power, as employed by historical sociologists such as Mann. ‘Material power’ implies raw, unsocialised power – what Arendt refused to call power proper but instead termed violence. Institutional efficiency brings to mind Pareto efficiency, discussion of which obscures consideration of inequality and power – as argued by Sen. Mann’s idea of social power involves social organisation (institutions in the broad sense) but involves recognition of the ability of those at the apex of social organization to ‘outflank’ subordinate actors. This kind of power isn’t ‘material’ as such, and it doesn’t really relate to the question of efficiency among institutions. Mann’s notion of social power is quite close to the idea of structural power as employed in Barnett and Duvall’s influential article on concepts of power in IR theory. I’d suggest, therefore, that it’s omission from Bennett’s typology limits this version of ‘structured pluralism’ to some degree.

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Crisis Thinkers: Charles Tilly and #OWC Part 2

In the last post I drew upon Charles Tilly’s framework for understanding what he called contentious politics to shed some light on the tactics of OWC and aligned movements. That post analysed various common features of the gestation and development of such movements through mechanisms such as emulation, brokerage, formation of a blame narrative and the employment of a repertoire of contention. Although cautious about making claims for predictions about a process so open ended and dynamic as political protest, Tilly also offered some insights into how movements achieve success.

For Tilly and collaberators such as Tarrow working in the same tradition, the space for protest is strongly conditioned by the ‘political opportunity structure’ within a specific ‘political regime’. In other words, the space for protest depends on the specifics of a social and political context. Movements must be able to organise, communicate, reach out beyond their core base and to actually engage in some form of protest. Different opportunities result in different kinds of protest movements. For example, an acquaintance of mine was a dissident in communist Poland. He and fellow dissidents were severely limited in their ability to openly criticise the existing regime, but they took to wearing electronic resistors on their lapels to indicate that they were resisting the communist regime.

Resistance not always futile

In many non-democratic Islamic nations, political movements were systematically crushed by autocratic governments. As a result, political protest retreated inside of the remaining social space the security apparatus had difficulty operating within and could not shut down, the Mosque. This left movements like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as the primary vehicles for anti-government discontent, explaining a significant part of the rise of political Islam over the past three-and-a-bit decades.

But the political opportunity structure does not totally pre-determine the fate of political movements, according to Tilly a great deal depends on the strategies adopted by political movements. Such areas are genuinely resistant to generalisation, they depend on issues of timing, leadership, when to consolidate and when to go on the offensive – the stuff of political judgement. But Tilly does repeatedly insist that, at least in modern democratic societies, mass movements engaging in contentious politics have to take steps to publically demonstrate four things as they issue their claims:

  1. Worth: Movements engaging in contentious politics usually appeal to some set of widely acknowledged moral or political principles. To have credibility they need to demonstrate that they themselves are morally worthy by the standards of society. The more worthy a group, the more difficult it is for the state or other opponents to confront that group with violence. Thus successful pro-democracy movements often induce a kind of paralysis in the authorities – who cannot crush them without destroying what remains of their legitimacy. In order to demonstrate its worth the OWC movement has had to rebut claims that they are composed of only the shiftless unemployed and troublemakers, emphasising the role of veterans in the movement. The Occupy London Stock Exchange movement has been able to position itself as standing up for widely shared values of social justice, acting as the conscience and representative of theUKpublic. Their standing was increased after the St Paul’s farce, relative to both a Church that some now seen as having failed in its own moral mission and an opaque and murky political entity in the form of the Corporation of London.
  2. Unity: This requirement is pretty straightforward. Strong political campaigns can claim ‘E pluribus, unum’, drawing diverse individuals under a common banner. This might be where the OWC protests find themselves weakest, as the goals as well as their make-up of the protesters are diverse. Nonetheless, opposition to accelerating inequality has provided a common enough of a focal point to unify the movement thus far and allowed it to issue a reasonably clear public message about its goals, even if the specifics are vague.

    CC DoctorTongs

  3. Numerousness: Protestors must show that their claims are supported by large numbers. This might be because they need to demonstrate that their claims are not just the special pleading of a malcontented minority, but it also serves to demonstrate that their claims are supported by large numbers of people who, if they chose, could take more direct and disruptive action. In the OWC occupations efforts have been made to both attract more participants and to appeal to the idea that the occupiers are part of a much larger 99%. Opponents of OWC have tried to undermine such claims through the (somewhat incoherent) ‘We Are the 53%’ slogan, demonstrating the importance of the claim to numerousness. The ‘We Are the 1%’ style rebuttals, however, fail to understand the dynamic of protest within a democracy.
  4. Commitment: Protest movements attempt to demonstrate their depth of commitment to the principle underlying their claims by ostentatious public actions designed to remove scepticism that they are unserious or narrowly self-interested. Classic examples might include the Jarrow Crusade, or Ghandi’s hunger strike. Hence in the current round of protests, critics of Occupy London Stock Exchange have made the claim that protesters are not really sleeping in their tents at night. This is an attempt to undermine the public perception of their commitment.

As the above suggests, Tilly’s framework is relatively simple and intuitive but is nonetheless quite helpful in understanding the some of the dynamics involved in the current round of political protests.

Crisis Thinkers: Charles Tilly and #OWC

What thoughts might sociologist Charles Tilly have offered if he had lived to witness the #OWC protests? Probably something considerably more eloquent and erudite than this blog post. Nonetheless I’d like to offer some ideas drawn from the eminent historical sociologists rich and insightful work examining the nature and evolution of popular protest and collective action. The following mainly draws upon Dynamics of Contention (2001, with McAdam and Tarrow) and Contentious Politics (2006, with Tarrow), which examine what Tilly referred to as ‘contentious politics’: episodes and campaigns of non-institutionalised claim making.

The Occupy protests (as well as the Tea Party in the USand the student protests in the UK) are clearly examples of movements engaging in contentious politics. Tilly’s schema for analysing such movements employs a set of mechanisms which account for the strategies of those involved in collective action. Movements make normative ethical/political claims that (usually) draw upon principles which are widely accepted within their wider social context, as members of OWC do when they point out that extremes of inequality have undermined the cherished American principle that with hard work anyone can achieve a middle-class lifestyle.

An important part of such claims is the blame narrative, which assigns responsibility for the complaint with a political set of agents and identifies that which the movement is protesting against – ‘the 1%’ and the Wall Street financial sector in the case of OWC. At the same time, movements must try to appeal to a broad set of supporters from whom they can draw moral and practical support. This involves brokerage, the attempt by activists to find grounds for a common platform with groups beyond the original ‘base’ of the social movement. This is depicted superbly in the film Milk, which highlights Harvey Milk’s skill at building bridges with social groups beyond his core constituency of homosexual men.

Movements tend to draw on a relatively narrow repertoire of contention, a ‘script’ of common protest actions varying heavily from place to place. Movements tend to emulate the repertoires of other successful protest movements, perhaps best demonstrated by the wave of ‘colour revolutions’ in which successive groups of democratic activists in different nations drew on the techniques of past movements for democracy. OWC has clearly drawn on both the experiences of anti-war and global justice movements over the past decade and emulated the tactic of occupying a central urban space employed by the Egyptian protestors in Tahrir square.

As this post is already fairly long, I’m going to break it into two parts. The second will look at Tilly’s framework for analysing what movements actually have to do to successfully press their claims and offer some thoughts about OWC’s strengths and weaknesses.